We are prone to naivety in regard to reading our current cultural moment. You’ve likely heard someone recently—either in person or online—decry the fact that “society has never been in worse shape,” or that “things are spiraling out of control like never before.” Such clichés ignore the reality of our history that includes centuries of wretched conditions that we have devised while following our depraved hearts. While some things may indeed be bad, in terms of historical perspective, we have often seen much, much worse.
This reality, in reverse, is what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he lamented the “chronological snobbery” of his day. Lewis noted that those alive in his day often spoke and acted in ways that suggested their culture epitomized the high-water mark of human development. Lewis challenged the hubris of this notion by pointing out that human progress will never equate to a utopic movement. Nor is the opposite trend defensible. The modern age, though rife with brokenness and moral deconstruction at every level, does not mark a new low in the devolution of human society.
We have been here before.
No Simple Answers
Missionary disciples paving the way into the future must embrace the tension between these two realities. We must avoid overlaying a blissful airbrushed caricature of this present moment, nor suggest a romanticized, excessively glib sense of what might come in the future. Such proposals will always leave the next generation discouraged when the difficult reality of mission in North America fails to live up to our rose-colored proposals. If the path to missional effectiveness was easy, more churches would risk the status quo of perpetual reinvestment in their diminishing returns for a more missionary posture.
But missional effectiveness is never easy.
Take the subject of race. It’s impossible to engage the missiological footprint of the church in North America, much less consider the present predicament and our future potential, without honestly approaching this critical subject. Few will question the legitimate need to press into this subject and address past sins, present apathy, and the need for future grace.
Yet, any suggestions that equate to “7 Simple Steps to Wokeness” are illegitimate at their inception. Pastors, planters and missionary practitioners alike are left to stumble through paltry attempts at racial identification, only to find such proposals merely scratch the surface of the work that must be done to realize the dream of a church on earth that resembles the Kingdom of God.
On the other hand, we must avoid over-generalized claims that create a sense of terror about the future of the church. Again, this is a mistake often made around the subject of race relations. We’re apt to hear of painful and unjust experiences or scour the internet following the latest incident of racially motivated tyranny only to throw our hands up in lament and walk away from the conversation completely. Can we really hope to move the needle on such a massive issue amid a culture that seems to relish any opportunity to point fingers, poke holes, and push buttons? The answer for the people of God must be a resounding “Yes!”
Why we have hope
Why? It’s certainly not because we have all of the answers. The church in North America clearly has not mastered the art of missiological engagement across many lines of demarcation in our culture. We don’t have a clear plan for embodying—at least in microcosmic form—a single, united people of God from every tribe, tongue, and nation here on earth as it is in heaven.
Sure, we have wonderful theology that suggest God’s answer to our predicament. There are even well-written, beautifully articulated proposals on steps we might take to turn the tide. And we have godly leaders —rank and file alike—who are ushering us into the future by taking steps to bring racial harmony through courageous acts of love, mercy, and justice. But no one has figured it all out. We don’t have the clear blueprint for success. The issues are complex, and the answers are nuanced.
Hope doesn’t come from answers. But from the Answer.
Authentic and lasting hope never emerges from easy answers to the questions of a broken world beleaguered by social thorns and private thistles. Hope comes from a Person—the one who embodies God’s clear answer to save sinners and fix a world he loves. When we look to Jesus, we’re reminded that God is faithful to His mission. Jesus came to accomplish the Father’s mission in His incarnation, and He will come again one day to complete the Father’s mission.
There’s hope because God is at work. Regardless of our imperfect eschatological perspective on the ultimate trajectory of human standing—whether we assume things will generally get better, stay about the same, or get much worse—we have a hope that is certain. As Christ-called disciples, we must continually remind ourselves that God has called his people to be hope-filled, wide-eyed optimists, ever-willing to experience difficulty knowing that the power of God’s Spirit is at work moving His world forward to His perfect end.
While it may seem that things are bad and are only getting worse, we must not lose heart. Our King is victorious. His Kingdom is coming. His plan is perfect. And He’s given us all we need to move forward and take our Spirit-empowered wisdom and walk into the future.
Our answers will always be insufficient, but our King never is.
Jeff Christopherson is an author and Chief Missiologist of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). He also serves as Co-Executive Director of the Send Institute, a partnership of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and the North American Mission Board.